Jonny Nexus

Writing, life, politics

Tag: rant

Is There Really No Such Genre As Humorous SF/Fantasy?

Today is not turning out to be a day to be happy. At best it’s turning out to be a day to think, and it’s not proving to be the sort of thinking that leads to outcomes I like.

Why?

Well I’ve got a simple ambition – simple to define that is, certainly not simple to achieve. I want to be a mainstream, published writer, with an agent, a publisher, and books in bookshops around the world. I don’t want writing to be my hobby. I’d like it to be my job.

I received two emails today, both very nice, both very polite, and both trying to be as constructive and helpful as possible.

The first was from a fan of Critical Miss urging me to forgot about mainstream publishing and instead self-publish.

The second was an agent who, in a very thoughtful, constructive and helpful email… turned me down. Mainly this was due to my writing not setting him on fire. That’s fine. Writing is, as he himself said, very subjective, and I think humour is doubly so. But he also said something else, that I’ve previously heard from other people, which (paraphrasing his words) is this:

As far as the mainstream book world is concerned there isn’t really such a thing as a market for, or genre of, humorous SF/Fantasy. There’s just a Terry Pratchett market, and that’s that.

I can believe this to be true, which is what makes it so doubly depressing. But it seems perverse. Terry Pratchett became the best selling UK author of the 1990s by writing humorous fantasy, and the conclusion that was drawn from this was that there is no market for humorous fantasy? That’s he so cornered the market that there’s no room for anyone else?

Trying to break into the fiction market is hard enough as it is. It’s not enough to be good, I know that. You have to be great, and even then you have to find people whose tastes are aligned precisely enough with yours that you’re their kind of great.

But if you’re writing for a genre that doesn’t exist, then what’s the point? You may as well give up and go home. Or in my case, leave home and go to work (a.k.a. the day job).

Three years back, I wrote a book, Game Night, which people loved. It wasn’t technically self-published, but it was self-marketed. It wasn’t in any bookshops save a handful of Waterstone’s, where it appeared due to the efforts of individual staff who were fans. It was about a subject perceived to be even more niche than humorous fantasy. You think humorous fantasy’s niche? This was humorous roleplaying game fantasy! There was no marketing budget. There were no PR people. Hell, there were no editors.

There was just me.

And yet it’s sold nearly two thousand copies, which I’m told is pretty good for books.

At 2008’s Eastercon I had two middle-aged, female, Terry Pratchett fans who’d never played a roleplaying game in their life buy the book. They loved it. One came back the next day to say: “I was awake half the night, and it’s all your fault, because I couldn’t put it down, because it’s brilliant!”

A few months later we went to the 2008 Discworld Convention, which is, as the name suggests, basically a Terry Pratchett fan convention. We sold 76 copies, which amounts to a little over one in ten of the people attending. I’ve since met many of those people again, and they’ve all told me how much they love the book.

I’ve got a page on my website listing literally dozens of seriously nice quotes about Game Night, many of whom compare it favourably to Terry Pratchett’s works.

Barely a month goes by without someone asking me when me next book will be out. Nagging even. (I mean that literally. For the record, the most recent time was at a party in Wincanton on Saturday 5th March, whose attendees included several Terry Pratchett fans. I’m not making this shit up.)

And each time I have to tell them sorry, don’t know, but it’s a long time away at best.

Which is what I find so frustrating. On one side I have a bunch of people who like what I’ve written thus far, and who not only want more but are getting annoyed at my failure to produce something. And on the other side I have a book industry that says there’s no market for what I write.

I should stress again that I have no bad feelings whatsoever towards the agent who said this. I respect him, and value the kindness that led him to send me a personal written rejection rather than a standard form reply. If I thought his words were falsehoods backed by poor judgement they would be easy to dismiss. It’s that I believe his words to be truths backed by hard-earned knowledge that’s made me so depressed.

It’s probably a little unprofessional to confess to being depressed on my blog (strictly speaking I’m pissed off and miserable rather than actually, clinically depressed) but I figure what’s a blog for if it’s not to be occasionally honest?

I’m not about to give up. There’s still more agents out there, and I’ll keep plugging away, although it worries me that if publishers really do all believe that there’s no market for humorous SF/fantasy, then any agent who might take me on is apparently, by definition, a fool who doesn’t understand the market.

And if we get to this time next year with no progress made, then maybe I will look down the self-publishing route. But if I do, it will be with a heavy heart. I don’t want to be a salesman or a publicist or an editor. I just want to write. I’d like the prestige of being a “published” author, rather than the dubious honour of being part of a process that I once heard a big-name SF author describe as “evil”. I’d like to believe that I might one day be a guest at an SF convention, rather than just the bloke with a stall in the dealers room trying to sell his self-published “crap”.

And I fear that the day I go self-published is the day I give up on the dream of ever making a living at this. I’ve tried selling a book and it isn’t anything like as easy as people think. But maybe that’s an impossible dream anyway. Very few authors make a living writing, and in the “information wants to be free” Internet era I suspect that number will be even further reduced.

It’s not about the money. I’ll never earn as much as a writer as I currently earn as a programmer in the City. And it’s not just about wanting to do a job I enjoy – although that’s a big part of it. It’s about wanting to have time to write all the stories in my head. I bought myself a notebook recently and on the first page, wrote a list of all the novels I already have ideas for.

There’s eleven of them, eight of which are in a genre that apparently doesn’t exist. I’d like to arrange my life such that I might actually get to write them one day.

Here’s hoping.

The Campaign For Real Stairs

Stairs are good, good for you, and good for the planet. Take the stairs instead of a lift (an elevator for those of you from across the pond) and you’ll reduce your carbon footprint and improve your fitness level. So given those facts, why the hell do the architects of modern hotels and office blocks so delight in hiding the stairs away?

I saw a prime example of this at the recent Discworld Convention, held at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole Hotel. Go to the Hilton and you’ll find a rather sumptuous, marble lined lobby around which are set chairs, desks, rugs and a bank of lifts. But if it’s the stairs you were looking for, you might be a long time looking, because they’re hidden away being a very discrete door – which Jules and I only found because having found a door to the stairs on an upper floor, we followed them down to see where they would go.

Yes, that door does have “stairs” written on it, but trust me, it’s a small sign on a small door, positioned on the fringes of a very big room. Of course, what it leads to isn’t really the stairs, it’s a fire exit – which is why it’s entirely hidden behind doors and bare/basic to the point of being grotty. (All metal and painted concrete, like a multi-storey car-park).

Which is crap. Because it’s hard enough as it is to pursuade people to use the stairs instead of the lifts without:

a) hiding them; and

b) decorating them in such a way that it makes people using them feel like they’re trespassing into an area of the hotel which guests aren’t supposed to visit.

At the Discworld con you’d see people waiting for lifts when they only needed to go down a floor or two – when it would literally have been quicker to walk down, and would have taken no real effort at all. Given the way the options were presented, I can’t blame them – but to be burning electricity to increase your journey time is insane.

Can we not just have proper buildings with proper staircases? When I go into the lobby of a hotel or an office, I want to see a grand staircase leading away from me, winding its way up through the building. I don’t mind there being lifts, away to one side. But the building should be designed in such a way as to imply that the stairs are the standard, default, and intended way of getting around the building, with the lifts only there as an extra option, for those who are infirm, are carrying items, or have several floors to travel.

That would be better for us. It would be better for the planet. And it might just give those buildings a sense of the grandeur that modern buildings so often lack.

Who’s with me?

UK2, Spammers, And The Mysterious Disappearance Of My Website

Friday lunchtime, everything was fine in the world, or at least in my on-line portion of it. My new website was up, functioning, and looking – dare I say it – pretty good. Granted, I was getting a torrent of grotesquely horrible spam comments on the blog portion of the site, but the WordPress spam filter was catching them. It wasn’t very nice having to periodically log into the site’s admin pages and delete 156 comments with links to things like “ch***d p**n” and “p**do r**pe” (no, I wasn’t being naive when I said this spam was horrible – I’ve been on the net nearly fifteen years, and the type of spam my blogs been getting shocked me deeply, and while I’m guessing it doesn’t actually link to what it purports to be linking to, it’s still deeply unpleasant to receive), but other than that, and that is a big other, things were fine.

(Except, of course, that it’s managed to raise my hatred of spammers from its already incandescent level to a white hot level of biblical fury. I’m regretting being an atheist, because it means these scumbags won’t go to hell. I hope they accidentally spam Osama Bin Laden with porn and then get taken out by an Al Qaida suicide squad. I’ve moved way beyond the point where I hope they come down with particularly painful cases of rheumatoid arthritis, and instead want them to stay flexible enough that I might one day read of them accidently choking to death on their own genitals during a solo sex session. I no-longer agree with Barak Obama’s shutdown of Guantanamo Bay and his abandonment of torture. Sure, I’ve previously said that the Western world needs to maintain the moral high ground, but that was when we were talking about suspected international terrorists, for God’s sake! I have no problem whatsoever with the CIA kidnapping spammers off whatever rat-infested streets they might happen to be inhabiting, extraordinarily renditioning them to Camp X-Ray, and giving them a damn good dose of water-boarding.)

Anyway… On Friday evening, I whipped out my iPhone and tried to show my site to Martin, a guy who might be taking over Tales of the Decongested, and found that I got a page saying: “This site has been suspended. If you are the administrator of this site you should contact either our support or billing departments as soon as possible.”

This was not fine, however loosely you define that word.

Of course, by then it was past Friday 5 pm, and UK2 (my hosts) are strictly a Monday to Friday outfit when it comes to support for basic hosting. If they’d given me the basic curtsey of sending me an email that afternoon to tell me they’d just turned my sodding website off, I could have phoned them before the support lines shutdown. (Note: the host account’s registered email account is not with them, so even if everything in the account was turned off, they still could have emailed me). But no, they left me to find out myself, and by then it was too late.

So I had no option but to spend the weekend periodically checking the site to see if it had come back, finding the message there each time. It’s not a nice message. “Suspended” is a dodgy sounding word, which could cover everything from “This man doesn’t pay his bills” to “this man has been distributing Nazi propaganda” to something far, far worse. Alright, it’s not like coming home to find the word “pedo” scrawled across your door, as I believe once happened to a paediatrician who made the mistake of living on a housing estate populated by illiterate vigilantes. But it’s still not very nice.

About the only good thing about the situation was that it was only the website they’d turned off; my email was still working.

So first thing Monday morning, hoping it was just some kind of direct debit snafu, I phoned up the billing department, and was bluntly informed that my website had been “banned” by the “abuse team” for “abuse” and no, they couldn’t tell me what it was. The only thing I could do was go to the support section of the website and create a support “trouble ticket”. Which I did.

Hi there,

Some time on Friday, my website (jonny-nexus.com) stopped being available. There was just a message saying that it was unavailable due to being suspended and that the owner should contact either the billing or support department.

I phoned billing this morning, and they said that it had been banned due to some kind of abuse issue (spam etc).

I’m a bit mystified by this as I never done any kind of spamming whatsoever, my website is very harmless, and I’m using your mail server for mail (i.e. it can’t be one of those cases where spammers are using a misconfigured server).

The only thing I could possibly think it might be is that I recently installed a WordPress blog (using your install script) and I’m getting a lot of really horrible spam comments. They’re being caught by the spam filter, so they don’t go on the blog, but I have to log into the admin page to delete them – so perhaps one of your systems saw the WordPress admin page with the spam comments on it being sent out to me, and that tripped some kind of alarm.

The page I would be looking at is (from memory) something like:

http://www.jonnynexus.com/wp-admin.php

Anything on that is just stuff that I’m seeing, having logged in as admin.

Obviously, I want to get my site up and running asap. If you can sort out what’s going on and get back to me I’d be very grateful. You can email me on the above email address or call me on 07954 589313.

Thanks,

Jonny

I then sat back and waited for a response, which – and this will be no surprise to anyone who’s ever googled the words “UK2” and “Complaints” – didn’t come.

First thing Tuesday morning, I phoned the support line, quoted my trouble ticket reference, and was told that only the system-admins could deal with this sort of thing. I said that at this point, I just wanted to know why I was banned. (It’s not a very nice feeling. You wonder if someone’s been doing something awful in your name, and you might get into trouble for it.)

But the guy on the phone line could only apologise, saying that the only thing he could do was ramp the priority of the trouble ticket right up, and then email the sysadmins to ask them to respond. I asked him to do that, and waited for a response.

4pm, seven hours later, that response still hadn’t come. I phoned again, three times, and couldn’t get through. I tried again at 4:40pm, and this time did get through, and got the same non-answer. By this time I was really wound up. Forget getting my website back up and running; I just wanted someone to tell me what it was I was supposed to have done. The guy promised to go over to the sysadmins right there and then and ask them to email me with an explanation, and said I would have something in 10 minutes.

Well it wasn’t 10 minutes, it was nearer 30, but lo and behold, the following popped into my inbox, around 96 hours (and three phone calls) after they took my site down without even bothering to tell me.

Hi Jonny.

Please accept my apologies for delay in getting back to you. We have received large amount of spam via your account and as your disk quota has been reached, random message we picked up looked like was sent from your account. We have unlocked your account and it should be online shortly. Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience.

Kind regards

XXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX
Server Engineer

UK2 IT

Ticket: www.uk2.net/submit_ticket

At UK2 we promise to bend over backwards to help you! www.uk2.net/webendoverbackwards

I have no idea what that means. Really. I understand the words, but not the way they’ve been put together. John suggested that perhaps someone out there at Server A was sending a stream of dodgy emails to Server B with my address put in as the return address so Server B was sending response emails to UK2’s server and that was what caused the problem – but in that case, surely it would have been my mail they’d taken down not my server?

And what’s all this stuff about disk quota? There’s hardly anything on my site. I’m probably using about 1% of my disk quota. About the only thing you can discern from the mail is that there was nothing wrong with my site and it was taken down in error due to some kind of false positive. But without knowing what that false positive was, I can’t take any actions to prevent it happening again.

At the end of the day, I’m pretty unhappy with this. The idea that they might take down my site (in error!), not tell me, and then – when I contact them – refuse to do anything more than confirm that yes, they’ve taken down my site – well it’s not good.

Needless to say, I won’t be recommending them. The standard signature tacked onto the end of the email stated:

At UK2 we promise to bend over backwards to help you!

Well someone got bent over backwards last Friday afternoon, but I’m not sure it was them.

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